Years ago someone said to me, “If you want to hear some real stories about moviemaking, just talk to a stuntman.” I’ve since forgotten who actually gave me such sage advice, but he was dead on. Stuntmen and -women are the unsung heroes of the film industry, risking life and limb on a daily basis to make other people look good, rarely getting much acclaim (outside of the industry itself, at least) for their hard work. So if you ever find yourself in the same room as a stuntman, go buy him a drink; he'll tell you some wild shit.
Until that day, however, do the next best thing: buy Vic Armstrong’s biography, The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman: My Life as Indiana Jones, James Bond, Superman and Other Movie Heroes. You may not actually know who Vic is as of this writing, but I guarantee you’ll be telling all of your movie-geek friends his stories when you finish reading his book. The man has not only led an incredible and fascinating life, but his impact on the film industry is indelible.
Who Wrote it: Vic Armstrong obviously had more than a little bit to do with his own biography, but he also wrote it in conjunction with the great British film historian Robert Sellers, who has written books like Hellraisers: The Wild Lives and Fast Times of Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson.
Who’s In It: Vic Armstrong, obviously. But the stories he tells involve more Hollywood greats than I can list in this small space. Stunt doubling for Harrison Ford, Christopher Reeve and half the actors who played James Bond; going to wild sex parties hosted by Burt Reynolds; meeting drug lords in South America; throwing Tom Cruise under a speeding truck; telling Steven Spielberg he’s wrong; being given a Quaran from Muammar Gaddafi ... The people Vic has worked with in his life are incredible, and the man has an equally incredible story about each and every one of them.
What’s It About: Vic Armstrong, obviously. But more than that, World’s Greatest Stuntman is about two core things: showing how different the movie industry used to be (and how it can never, ever be the same again) and explaining just how important and overlooked the roles of people like Vic are. And Vic’s attitude on both fronts shows just why he is indeed the best in the business.
Why You Should Read It: If you’ve got any kind of interest in old Hollywood and the way things used to be, then this is without question a must-read for you. Not only do his stories involve some of the best filmmakers that have ever lived -- David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, just to name a few -- but they revolve around how the nature of the business has changed. Things on set have become far more democratic. The absolute command that a director or an A-list producer had in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the lengths they would go to to get things done is mind-blowing.
Sure, everyone says, “They don’t make movies like they used to,” but that’s such a nebulous phrase. When you hear Vic talking about living on a movie set for over a year to film just a single sequence or about how other movies were in production for so long that many of the crew ended up marrying locals and having children before the films even wrapped, it’s painting a picture of a world that we can never go back to. But what’s great about Vic telling these stories isn’t that he’s some old man telling “back in my day” yarns; it’s that he’s been in the business for so long, he’s seen how it used to be, how it is today, and where it’s going next.
And if stories about the Hollywood of yesteryear aren’t your thing, don’t worry -- Vic has plenty of modern stories and insights to share as well. He was the second unit director on movies like Total Recall (for which he filmed some 1,200 setups, which is ridiculous), Starship Troopers (for which Paul Verhoeven said he should have been called his co-director), Gangs of New York, War of the Worlds and even two versions of Mission: Impossible III (he spent months working with Scarlett Johansson on stunts only to have the movie get cancelled without explanation).
Basically, think back on all of the awesome blockbusters over the last 20 years that were filled with practical stunt work. Not the CGI-laden crap that comes out today, but stuff that involves a real person jumping from, say, a horse to a Panzer tank; or driving cars through an ice palace (Die Another Day); or driving half a car through an office building (The Green Hornet). If you watch it and go, “Damn, that looks like it hurt,” chances are Vic was involved somehow. He’s been this unheralded savior of movie magic for decades, and hearing how he makes the incredible credible is a must for any film fan.
There are few people in showbiz with as much experience and respect as Dino de Laurentiis. He started in the business humbly as a prop master and actor in Italy and rose to become one of the most successful and celebrated producers in Hollywood history. Today, the world mourns the loss of one of the progenitors of the modern movie mogul as de Laurentiis heads to the great studio in the sky, but I thought it'd be nice to honor his career by highlighting a few of his most notable films.
Bitter Rice (1949)
A gripping drama and exemplary case of the majesty of Italian neo-realist cinema, Bitter Rice centered on a love "rectangle" between a pair of criminals and another set of individuals with whom they become involved with both romantically and criminally. Anchored by terrific performances, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for its writing, the first of many de Laurentiis films to garner international acclaim.
La Strada (1954) -
A beautiful but heartbreaking tale of love in the unlikeliest of places and devastating loss, La Strada starred the great Anthony Quinn as Zampano, a traveling strong man who mistreats his female companion Gelsomina who was sold to him by the girls mother. He really loves the girl but is unable to express his emotion and eventually this, along with a morbid string of events, leads him to abandon her. The universal themes within this classic Federico Fellini film carried La Strada all the way to the 1957 Academy Awards, where it won the Foreign Language Oscar. It remains one of the most treasured pieces of art in the world.
Battle of the Bulge (1965)
De Laurentiis went uncredited as a producer on this WWII epic that starred Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Robert Ryan, James MacArthur and Charles Bronson. The story focused on the bloody conflict between Allied and Nazi forces for the major port city of Antwerp in the winter of 1944. Its narrative gave the point of view of an American intelligence officer and a German Panzer Commander. The film was nominated for a handful of Golden Globes and is one of the most beloved war movies of all time.
Danger: Diabolik (1968) -
Displaying incredible foresight, Dino was one of the (if not the) first filmmaker to acknowledge the potential of comic books as source material for feature films. He produced this adaptation, about a skilled thief who steals from the Italian government and lives a lavish lifestyle. Filled with suspense, sex appeal, action and adventure, Danger: Diabolik was a commercial success and a classic film that has influenced many modern heist films such as Entrapment and the Oceans films.
The second and more recognizable comic book adaptation from de Laurentiis, Barbarella was a super sexy science fiction flick featuring the seductive title character (played by the beautiful Jane Fonda) who thwarts the evil plans of the villainous Durand-Durand. Campy by today's standards, Barbarella is a landmark film that deserves kudos for its tremendous scope and its visionary storytelling. I don't think there would be an Avatar if Barbarella didn't exist.
One of the greatest films of the 1970s and an incredibly controversial true story, Serpico tells of real life NYPD Officer Frank Serpico, who refused to be corrupted by the system and saw his colleagues turn against him as a result of his honest actions. Al Pacino gives a tour de force performance as the tragic titular character and much kudos must go to de Laurentiis (and director Sidney Lumet), who took on a risky subject at a time when New York crime was at its peak.
Death Wish (1974)
Many revenge tales have been told since this classic 70s thriller, but few can compare to its brutality and stone cold protagonist. Charles Bronson stars as Paul Kersey, a Manhattan architect who goes on a killing spree after thugs murder his wife. This flick laid out the formula for the standard revenge story and remains one of the very best. De Laurentiis didn't stick around for the lesser sequels for good reason; none of them hold up quite as well as Michael Winner's original.
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Going against the proven Bond formula, de Laurentiis produced this paranoia-era spy thriller at a time when shady government deadlings were commonplace. directed by the great Sydney Pollack. Together, they assembled an all-star cast including Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max Von Sydow. The film says worlds about the espionage community and its practices and has influenced the work of Doug Liman and Steven Soderbergh, to name a few.
Dino deserves a posthumous pat on the back for taking on a tale like E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. It is such a specific story, era-appropriate costumes and sets needed to be built to recreate 1900s New York City so that the actors could get the feel for the period. Under the masterful direction of Milos Forman, Ragtime was nominated for a whopping eight Academy Awards and though it didn't take any home on Oscar night, the film is undeniably a legendary accomplishment.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
High brow cinema, this is not, but Conan was an ambitious effort nonetheless. Like Barbarella, Conan opened up a whole new world of adventure for fans of fantasy and science fiction. It is, for lack of a better word, awesome, and gave global audiences the Arnold Schwarzenegger we know and love.
Not as well known as the other films in the Hannibal Lektor series, this Michael Mann directed original is where the terror began. Most agree that it is scarier even than the Oscar winning Silence of the Lambs, but Dino's vision is what propelled the franchise - and Lektor - to its iconic status. He would go on to produce the sequel Hannibal, the remake Red Dragon and the prequel Hannibal Rising before his death.